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The Case of Plessy V. Ferguson and Its Impact on The Lives of Americans

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On January 31, 1865 the 13th amendment was passed abolishing slavery in the United States. Even though slavery was abolished this did not end discrimination for African Americans. States continued to construct laws making it harder for African Americans to be equal. In 1896, a man named Homer Plessy decided to put one of those laws to the test. Plessy was a creole. This meant he was not entirely African American or entirely white, however in the eyes of the law he was considered African American. On June 7, 1892 Plessy decided to sit in a whites only train car. After being told to move without compliance, as he expected, he was arrested and sent to jail. In the case of Homer A. Plessy v. John H. Ferguson, 163.U.S 537 (1896) the judge ruled forcing him to move into a different train car did not violate his constitutional rights. Plessy took action by moving his case to the Supreme Court. In a 1 to 7 decision the court ruled the Fourteenth Amendment allowed separate facilities for different races as long as those facilities were equal. The case of Plessy v. Ferguson impacted the lives of many Americans in a myriad of ways including solidifying segregation in schools and public places with the Jim Crow laws, literacy tests prevented African American citizens from voting and ineligible to serve on a jury, and a grandfather clause was also created to further separate the African American community.

Before the case of Plessy v. Ferguson executed, the idea of Jim Crow laws arose, “Jim Crow” refers to a slang term given to an African American man. Jim Crow Laws were the previous set of laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. The Jim Crow Laws were enacted by white supremacists who believed whites were superior to African Americans in all aspects. At first, the larger cities did not entirely uphold the Jim Crow laws which led to an influx of African Americans into these cities where they could find more freedom from these laws. There was no real documentation or legislature backing up these laws until after the ruling of the Plessy v. Ferguson case. After the case was settled, the Jim Crow Laws started to be formalized. The establishment of these laws continued to further segregate the United States. The Jim Crow Laws heavily affected African American lifestyle across the country hindering African Americans from entering public parks, theaters, and restaurants due to segregation. Everything had to have separate waiting rooms inside train stations, water fountains, and elevators. Laws were created to prohibit African Americans from living in white only neighborhoods. Jim Crow laws enforced segregation in schools and white and African American students were allotted different textbooks in certain states. Not only did the Jim Crow Laws enforce segregation in public places, but they implemented literacy tests as well.

After the Plessy v. Ferguson case, Literacy tests were implemented to prevent African Americans from voting, serving in a jury, and running for office. A literacy test is a test used to assess the reading and writing capabilities of an individual. Many state governments in the United States administered literacy tests in order to deprive African Americans of their rights. Literacy tests were first implemented in the 1890’s in order to deny rights to African Americans. Literacy tests would be taken as a part of voter registration. In the literacy test the applicants were required to write and interpret sections of the Constitution and were required to write an essay stating the responsibilities of citizenship. Registration officials were allowed to determine which applicants passed or failed. If the test was failed the citizen would be denied the right to vote. Whites could be exempted from literacy tests if they met certain requirements such as a grandfather clause.

Another way that the Plessy v. Ferguson case expanded segregation in America by implementing grandfather clauses. To further restrict African American voting rights, white supremists implemented an unfair literacy test and a poll tax they knew blacks could not afford. They required everyone to take the literacy test and pay the poll tax however there was one exception, the grandfather clause. A grandfather clause is when certain people or things are exempted from the requirements of a piece of legislation affecting the person’s previous rights or privileges. For instance, when referring to literacy tests, white Americans were given permission to vote before the literacy tests were put into place, and could now be exempted from having to take the literacy test at all in order to vote. The Grandfather Clause stated that if a male whose grandfather or father had the right to vote pre-Civil War, they would be covered by the clause and people who did not have the right to vote before the Civil War would be required to take the literacy test and pay the poll tax. Almost all the whites were allowed to vote through the grandfather clause. Unfortunately, no African Americans had a father or grandfather who voted before the Civil War because they had just recently allowed voting rights to males of any race. Therefore the grandfather clause only applied to whites, which was the goal of the white supremists who enabled this clause. Overall, the case of Plessy v. Ferguson impacted the lives of many Americans in a myriad of ways including solidifying segregation in schools and public places with the Jim Crow laws, literacy tests prevented African American citizens from voting and ineligible to serve on a jury, and a grandfather clause was also created to further separate the African American community. Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark case that came to a seven to one vote tally of the Justices ruling against Plessy.

The majority opinion was written by Associate Justice Henry Billings Brown who rejected Plessy’s arguments that they were violating the Thirteenth Amendment and the fourteenth Amendment. The Thirteenth Amendment prohibits slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment grants equal rights of citizenship to African Americans. According to Brown, the Thirteenth Amendment and The Separate Car Act did not conflict. Brown said they did not conflict because it did not reestablish slavery or represent slavery in any way. Brown relied on the previous Civil Rights Cases of 1883 In reaching this conclusion he relied on the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), which found that racial discrimination against African Americans in inns, public conveyances, and places of public amusement “imposes no badge of slavery or involuntary servitude…but at most, infringes rights which are protected from State aggression by the XIVth Amendment.”

Yet the act did not conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment either, Brown argued, because that amendment was intended to secure only the legal equality of African Americans and whites, not their social equality. Legal equality was adequately respected in the act because the accommodations provided for each race were required to be equal and because the racial segregation of passengers did not by itself imply the legal inferiority of either race a conclusion supported, he reasoned, by numerous state-court decisions that had affirmed the constitutionality of laws establishing separate public schools for white and African American children. In contrast, social equality, which would entail the “commingling” of the races in public conveyances and elsewhere, did not then exist and could not be legally created: “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” In response to Plessy’s comparison of the Separate Car Act to hypothetical statutes requiring African Americans and whites to walk on different sides of the street or to live in differently coloured houses, Brown responded that the Separate Car Act was intended to preserve “public peace and good order” and was therefore a “reasonable” exercise of the legislature’s police power.

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The Case Of Plessy V. Ferguson And Its Impact On The Lives Of Americans. (2021, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 2, 2022, from
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